by Michael D. Sellers
Someday I’m going to put out a memoir along the lines of “Dispatches from the Trenches of Indie Film Warfare”….so along the way, I’m going to make a point of doing a post about each film–what the experience was like. This is the first installment.
Photo: A quiet street in Quezon City, near the offices of Pacwood Media
I began my “second coming” as a filmmaker in early 1990 when I quit my “day job” (more about that in other posts) and started a company called Pacwood Media in the Philippines. Yes – the Philippines. (My “first coming” was right out of NYU film school, ten years earlier.) My day job which I quit to resume film-maing (and which I will write about separately here at some point) was being a CIA officer working out of the US Embassy in Manila, helping the government of Corazon Aquino work to re-establish democratic institutions after 16 years of Marcos’ martial law, and to work to manage the effort of the Philippine government to counter the communist insurgency by the New People’s Army (NPA) which had been going on in the Philippines in one form or another since the 1950’s. So my route back to filmmaking was to set up a company in the Philippines where a) I could raise some money because I had high level contacts and b) I could make the case to American filmmakers that they could come over and save a bunch of money because of lower costs. Remember this was just a couple of years after “Platoon”, shot in the Philippines, had won Best Picture.
For quirky reasons that were more than a little strange, it turned out that the first money I was able to get my hands on was not to produce a Hollywood picture for the international market (which was the business concept of the company), but rather it was to produce a Tagalog language Fililpino film called “Umiyak Pati Langit”, which translates roughly as “Even the Heavens Cry”.
It was a strange journey.
The journey began in August 1990 when a Filipino director, Eduardo Palmos, approached me and said he wanted to make a film for the Metro Manila Film Festival which runs every year during the Christmas Holidays. The title was “Gisinging Natin Ang Dios”, which translates as “Let”s Wake Up God”…..(we later had to ditch this title because the censors wouldn’t allow it). Now … the Metro Manila Film Fest is a little different — it’s for Filipino films only, and what happens is that they take over the entire theater capacity of metro manila, shutting out anything but the Filipino films in the festival, for 10 days straddling Christmas and New Years. This means that if you’re in Manila, there are no foreign films available during this time — just “Pinoy” films. The films are supposed to celebrate Filipino cultural values, a common complaint was that the films were selected more on the basis of box office potential than on whether or not they conformed to the “celebrate Filipino cultural values” mission statement of the festival.
I didn’t really understand any of this at the time …. so when Ed Palmos came to me with a script which in a variety of very meaningful ways really did in fact celebrate Filipino values, I was intrigued. He was certain that with this script, and with his reputation (he was a bonafide artfilm director whose earlier film Babae Sa Ulog had won awards) we would get into the festival. Moreover Ed, who was nothing if not a pitchman, swore he could do this entire movie using major Filipino stars for 3 million pesos — about $150,000 at the time. He even had an investor on board for half of it. He just needed me to come up with the second half, $75,000, and we could make the movie.
I liked the story. It was a tale of an upper middle class family whose life is thrown in turmoil when the father dies without leaving insurance, and whose lives spiral down to a point where they are living in a squatter area and only have one another to hold them together. The key character was the mother, and Ed had his eye on Philippine screen legend Helen Gamboa to play the lead. But there were a number of juicy roles and Ed said he could deliver great actors for all of them at discounted talent rates because of the nature of the film and because of his relationships with him.
So, not really having a clue how I would come up with my half of the budget, I did what every indie producer does — I said “no problem, let’s do it” and we started working it in August or so.
“Working it” in this case first of all meant going to meet Ed’s 50% investor.
As we were driving out to Novaliches, a distant suburb of Manila, Ed began telling me about who were going to meet. First, he said — don’t be put off by his size.
“What you mean?”
“Well, he’s big.”
“How big?” ”
“About 500 pounds.”
Ed went on to explain. “Mang Ateng” (not his real name) suffered from diabetes and a few other ailments and as a result had gained an enormous amount of weight. He had lost one leg to circulation problems, but in spite of this — had built an empire as a manufacturer of shampoo and soap products which he had brilliantly marketed in the Philippines under the name “Australian Rain”, making it appear that it was an imported shampoo from Australia, which of course upped the value in the Philippine market. “He’s a really good guy,” Ed kept telling me as we bumped our way into a subdivision with nice houses in compounds that were an acre of so in size.
Photo: Entrance to Greenfields I subdivision in Novaliches, where Mang Apeng lived.
It was dark when we pulled into Mang Ateng’s compound and parked behind the half dozen or so vehicles that were visible, then walked past stacks and stacks of shampoo and soap. When Ed rang the doorbell a domestic helper (odd, I started to write “servant” but years in the Philippines have taught me that “servant” is never used there, and is somehow demeaning….”domestic helper” is the Filipino way of describing it) invited us and led us through a series of rooms and finally into THE room where Mang Ateng was seated on what I could only describe as a throne. He was huge … his body seemed to sort of flow over itself — yet he was completely lucid and cheerful and in fact touchingly human and warm. And he had a lovely, clearly adoring wife who took care of him and his guests effortlessly and with the kind of warmth that Filipinos consider second nature.
More of Mang Ateng’s character came out when he explained to me why he wanted to do this movie. It was, he told me, all about the story.
The deeper story of “Umiyak Pati Langit” centers on a woman who, when we meet her, is a modern middle class wife and mother — a woman with a good heart, attractive, lovingly taking care of her husband and children. We learn that mother-in-law detests her for reasons that aren’t entirely clear at first, and when the father dies without leaving any insurance, a battle of wills ensues in which the mother-in-law refuses to help unless the mother gives over the children, and the mother refuses to give them up, grimly hanging on to keep the family together even as they family plunge deeper and deeper into poverty. Along the way we learn (and this is what drew Mang Ateng into the story) that the mom herself was from a very poor family and had “done time” as a prostitute, and in fact had been a prostitute when she met her husband. It was this cloud over her background that had caused the mother-in-law to never accept her in spite of her other good qualities.
Well – it turns out that this tale mirrored Mang Apeng’s own tale. His wife, too, had been from a poor family and had helped her family with wages earned as a prostitute, and had been rejected by Mang Ateng’s mother.
So it was personal for him. He wanted to make the movie as a gift for his wife, and as a tribute to all that she had gone through for loving him through many years and many hardships.
A few hours and half a dozen San Miguel beers later, we were back in Ed’s car, a handshake deal in place, and headed back to Quezon City – loaded down with enough shampoo and soap to last five years. It was the simplest of deals — 50/50 partners, 3 million pesos, 1.5million each (about $75,000), Ed would direct, I would produce, and Mang Ateng would be an executive producer.
Now of course — as noted before– I didn’t have my half of the money but I was confident I could raise it. And in truth I got lucky and raised it very quickly, getting it from a single source — Lito Abuevas. Lito was as quirky in his own way as Mang Apeng. An amiable non-working playboy member of an otherwise hardworking wealthy family (one of the “major” families of Manila), Lito went by the nickname “scuba” because that’s how he spent most of his time. In spite of being somewhat subject to criticism from family members for his indolent lifestyle, Lito was actually a very goodhearted person and when I pitched him the story he too seemed to like it and take it personally — and so when I said it would only cost $1.5M and we’d be done, Lito said without hesitation–“Let’s do it”.
So my money materialized pretty quickly and painlessly. In fact now, 17 films later, I would have to say that this was the easiest it has ever been for me to put together financing for a film.
But it wouldn’t stay easy.
We set up the company, put my money in the bank, and Ed started talking to Mang Apeng about getting his money in place.
Here is where things started getting a little ‘hinky’.
It turned out, Ed told me, that Mang Apeng was waiting for his money, which was going to come in the form of collections from his first film, an “Eddie Garcia” thriller that had done reasonably well. Ed gave me the math — told me what the box office had been, what the distributor’s cut should be, and encouraged me that Mang Apeng’s money was days away. I wanted to wait until Mang Apeng’s money was in — but Ed frantically reminded me that we were already in desperate straits if we were going to make the film festival submission deadline, and the entire enterprise was founded on the notion that we’d get into the festival and get a 10 day run (instead of the usual 7) during the peak holiday viewing season. I was faced with a decision to either plunge in without Mang Apeng’s money, or risk having the whole thing come off the rails. I plunged. We launched prep with just my money in place.
And my money went fast.
First — I need to explain our modus operendi. I had rented a fairly large, creaky house on Examiner Street, a major street in Quezon City in the heart of the media district, near the TV stations and most of the movie production companies. The downstairs became the office, and the upstairs my living quarters.
For day after day, Ed and I would work on casting the film, obtaining crew, and getting vendors lined up — but always it was Ed who was the public face of the operation. I had to remain in hiding upstairs because, Ed was convinced (and he was right), the minute anyone saw an American involved, their price would go up 50%. And Ed was not only trying to get them to work for their regular rate — he was trying to get them for about fifty cents on the dollar (fifty centavos on the peso?).
So I remained in hiding.
And Ed delivered. For very little money even by Tagalog film standards, he first got screen legend Helen Gamboa (think Susan Sarandon) to play the mom. He then got another screen legend, Dante Rivero (Sean Connery type) to play the dad. Janice De Belen (a young Demi Moore) came on board as the daughter, and the rest of the cast were all good, strong actors with a name in the local market. Our film starting looking like a budding blockbuster. We were all jazzed.
Meanwhile, Mang Apeng’s money kept failing to materialize.
I made another pilgrimmage out to this compound, knocked down another half dozen San Miguel’s, and gently tried to figure out what was going on. All was well, he assured me. Mang Apeng promised that he had gotten all necessary assurances from his distributor that the money would be forthcoming. If I could just keep us going a few days longer, he would be ready with is money.
By this time we were days away from the start of filming and my money was going fast. Talent fees fo rthe actors, paid in advance, accounted for almost half of the P1.5m. Then the equipment deals, also paid in advance, took another P300,000. The caterer got 50% in advance, so another chunk went there. And wardrobe had to be created, some sets and props had to be created — so on the day before we wer escheduled to shoot, my $1.5m had been drained down to about P200,000 and I was desperately in need of Mang Apeng’s money to drop.
I’ll never forget the night before the first day of filming.
First of all — as an aside but one I should mention — I had a girlfriend at this time, named Lorna, and she was 9 months pregnant and due any day. So with all the stress of the movie, we also had that going on, and she was lying in bed, her tiny frame (she was about 5’1″) blown up to gigantic proportions with the child of a 6’5″ American, and while she tossed and turned in discomfort over the pregnancy, I was tossing and turning worrying about the fix I had gotten myself into.
And then, in the middle of the night — about 3 am (our call time was 6 am so this was just a couple of hours before the start of filming), I hear a car horn, tapping polittely but incessantly ind the carport just outside the front door. I went to the window — it was a flatbead truck, the kind used for hauling goods around Manila. The flatbed was empty except for a few stray bottles of….shampoo.
I went down, opened the door.
There was Mang Apeng, sitting in a specially configured driver’s seat which took up about 2/3 of the front bench of the truck. He reached over, pushed open the door, beckoned me to sit next to him. I climbed in an looked at him and the first thing I noticed was that this huge, shapeless mountain of a very kindhearted man was crying.
Obviously his money hadn’t come in — but it was worse than that. He had just found out that not only was the money not coming in any time soon, it wasn’t coming in at all. The distributror had finally given him a complete statement of account which he was clutching in his hand and turned over to me. He flicked on the cab light and I read it — and very quickly it became clear that because of an enormous (and largely fictional, I’m sure) claim of print and advertising expenses, the distributor was claiming that nothing was owed to Mang Apeng since the distributor, under standard film financing structure, was entitled to recoup his entire P and A advance in first position, then pay himself his commission, before anything was owed to the producer.
Mang Apeng had been taken.
He apologized profusely, wished me well, then drove away.
I stood there, standing in the driveway, watching him leave, wondering how in the hell I was ever going to get out of this one when I heard someone calling to me from upstairs.
It was my girlfriend — telling me her water had just broken.
(to be continued)